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Liberian Author Starts “Revolution from Below” with Anti-Corruption Primer for Children

Written By Courtney Mosby

Liberian writer and Ph.D. researcher Robtel Neajai Pailey says that she’s started a “revolution from below” with her book, Gbagba, an anti-corruption primer for children. On November 20, the Institute for Policy Studies and the Howard University African Studies Department jointly sponsored a D.C. launch of Gbagba, Pailey’s groundbreaking children’s narrative published in 2013 by One Moore Book, LLC, and illustrated by Liberian graphic artist Chase Walker. The book was previously launched in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, in February 2013.

Gbagba, loosely translated in Pailey’s mother’s language, Bassa, means trickery, or corruption. The two main characters in the book, Sundaymah and Sundaygar, are precocious Liberian twins who in a span of a few days navigate the subtle ways in which corruption and trickery infiltrate their lives. Gbagba delicately approaches the critical yet sensitive topics that may at first appear taboo for young audiences. But Pailey believes that “children are more astute than we give them credit for. They understand issues of accountability better than we do. My hope is that the book will give them the verbal tools to interrogate power, and to question the confusing ethical codes of the adults around them.”

During the launch, Pailey stressed that she wanted to explore corruption in Gbagba from a multi-faceted lens because too often it is seen in Liberia as something that only those in high public office engage in. In a New York Times op-ed earlier this year, Pailey wrote: “corruption is enmeshed in everyday human interaction. It is a function of both poverty and greed.” Gbagba shows corruption taking place in spaces as varied as the church, the market, schools, and in the public sector. Pailey said that while she was very careful about ensuring that children see the consequences of corruption, her message to the adults is that they have to do things differently, that anti-corruption policies must be aligned with practice in Liberia, and elsewhere.

Pailey explained that although she has occupied multiple spaces, having worked in media, academia, government, and the NGO sector, her firm ethical core and belief in the intrinsic value of accountability comes from her upbringing in Washington, D.C., under the watchful eyes of immigrant parents who taught her the difference between right and wrong. These were communal and cultural vestiges that her parents brought with them from Liberia, eventually inspiring Pailey to write Gbagba.

Hopefully with this book, the rumblings of a “revolution from below” will begin to be heard as all of us reflect on how we, through our everyday lives, engage in little acts of corruption. And how we might develop a new system of values for the generation that follows us. Pailey’s future goal includes gettingGbagba into Liberia’s national curriculum for 3rd-5th graders, and doing regional pilots of the book in Nigeria, South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya and Egypt.

Interested in hearing more about this powerful children’s book? The full audio feed from the November 20th launch can be accessed by listening to the Nov. 27th airing of Africa Now on WPFW’s 89.3 FM: (Audio available after Nov. 27). to purchase copies of Gbagba.

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